Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice

Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice

Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice

Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice


In 2000, with the success of the Human Genome Project, scientists declared the death of race in biology and medicine. But within five years, many of these same scientists had reversed course and embarked upon a new hunt for the biological meaning of race. Drawing on personal interviews and life stories, Race Decoded takes us into the world of elite genome scientists- including Francis Collins, director of the NIH; Craig Venter, the first person to create a synthetic genome; and Spencer Wells, National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, among others- to show how and why they are formulating new ways of thinking about race.

In this original exploration, Catherine Bliss reveals a paradigm shift, both at the level of science and society, from colorblindness to racial consciousness. Scientists have been fighting older understandings of race in biology while simultaneously promoting a new grand-scale program of minority inclusion. In selecting research topics or considering research design, scientists routinely draw upon personal experience of race to push the public to think about race as a biosocial entity, and even those of the most privileged racial and social backgrounds incorporate identity politics in the scientific process. Though individual scientists may view their positions differently- whether as a black civil rights activist or a white bench scientist- all stakeholders in the scientific debates are drawing on memories of racial discrimination to fashion a science-based activism to fight for social justice.


What we’ve shown is the concept of race
has no scientific basis.

—J. Craig Venter, International Herald Tribune, 2000

Those who wish to draw precise racial boundaries
around certain groups will not be able to use science
as a legitimate justification.

—Francis S. Collins, Cancer, 2001

We could test once and for all whether
genetic race is a credible concept.
—Aravinda Chakarvarti, Nature, 2009

A GIANT FLATSCREEN with the words “Decoding the Book of Life: A Milestone for Humanity” blinked in the background. The velvety blue of the flag in the corner of the room took on nuanced textures as cameras flashed. On June 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton, flanked by genome mappers Craig Venter and Francis Collins, announced that the human genome had been mapped: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life…. I believe one of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome is that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same.” Those present hailed genomics as the most transformative science in history—a milestone in human intellectual development, a sign of the arrival of geopolitical unity, and evidence of the essential fraternity of humanity. The most powerful scientists of the day joined Clinton in stating that scientific investigation into race would go no further. Genomics had once and for all closed the door on the idea of biological race.

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